Massachusetts Broadband Institute announces completion of rural high-speed network

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Axia NetMedia Corp. is poised to flip the switch on a new broadband network that will bring high-speed Internet to municipal facilities across Berkshire County.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute on Tuesday announced completion of a 1,200-mile fiber-optic network through 120 central and Western Massachusetts communities -- 19 of which are in the Berkshires.

Local facilities that stand to benefit from the technology -- town halls, police stations, fire departments, libraries, schools and other municipal buildings -- were offered up by city and town officials as network hubs.

Contractors wired the buildings as they made their way through the area during 2013.

"It's going to make a huge difference in our ability to market ourselves," state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, said Tuesday. "This shows we're keeping up with the 21st century."

In 2010, MBI received $45.4 million in federal stimulus funding to create the backbone of a large network that would provide high-speed Web access to underserved areas throughout western Massachusetts.

Tuesday's announcement marked the completion of the so-called "middle mile" phase of the state-led MassBroadband 123 project.

But state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed out in an interview that much investment is needed before individual homeowners and businesses can connect to the network.

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The state Senate is poised to move on a bond bill which includes $50 million to be put toward the project's phase, Pignatelli said.

"The state has made a very big commitment in hopes that the private sector would step up," Pignatelli said. "The time is now."

Want of an assured market may be holding up private companies like Comcast or Verizon from anteing up, Pignatelli said he believes.

Wagering that western Massachusetts consumers, many of whom already have satisfactory Internet service, would pay more for high-speed could be viewed as a dicey bet, he added.

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"It's going to come down to consumer choice and economics," Pignatelli said.

Towns like Savoy -- one rural Berkshire community many consider underserved -- could provide the market desired by potential investors.

John Tynan, chairman of the Savoy Select Board, said many people who live off Route 116, the town's primary road, are seeking a better connection, or any connection at all.

But Tynan agreed with Pignatelli's point.

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"A lot of people in town are interested, but they're waiting on some information like rates from potential providers," he said.

Cariddi, on the other hand, said the market's there.

"I think there's a healthy and growing market," Cariddi said. "Businesses and young people demand good Internet, and our schools and students require it."

The state has chosen Axia as system operator. Because the infrastructure backbone and perhaps more will be provided, the belief is that competition between companies seeking to connect potential customers will drive down costs.

Still, individual customers can anticipate a two- or three-year wait before the fiber-optic network reaches them, Pignatelli estimated.

State Sen. Benjamin Downing praised the development in a statement released Tuesday.

"I am thrilled that we have reached another milestone in our work to ensure universal access to high-quality, affordable broadband Internet," he said. "My hope is that this brings us momentum in our efforts to invest in [connecting] residences and businesses directly to the service they need and deserve."

To reach Phil Demers:
or (413) 281-2859.
On Twitter: @BE_PhilD


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